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Painfully Shy

Can shyness lead to problems with depression and anxiety?

We're all a little shy at times when meeting other people.   It's hardly surprising that shyness can often interfere with how we interact in social situations.    For some people however, shyness can lead to social anxiety and a crippling fear that results in deliberate isolation to avoid associating with others.    Extremely shy individuals are typically low in self-esteem and largely preoccupied with what others think of them.    Driven by a fear of rejection, shy people often engage in self-sabotage to prevent themselves from growing closer to others and avoid social situations when possible.  

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Research into shyness has suggested different causes including genetic influences,  prenatal influences, environmental factors (including the effects of emotional abuse in childhood), or as the result of a traumatic social episode.   While usually not severe enough to merit a diagnosis of social phobia or social anxiety, shyness can have a powerful effect on a person's sense of well-being along with being linked to depression or other emotional problems due to isolation. 

Often starting in early childhood, shy children are at greater risk of being bullied and rejected by their peers.   Those friendships they do succeed in making are often of lower quality than the friendships made by children who are less shy.   Shy children are more likely to internalize problems such as depression, anxiety, and loneliness.     There are also gender differences with shy boys being more likely to have socioemotional difficulties than shy girls.   This is probably due to shyness being less socially acceptable for boys than for girls since boys are expected to be more dominant and self-confident.  

Continuing into adulthood, shy people are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, loneliness, and poor relationship quality than those with more social confidence.    This is especially important during the transition years (18 to 26) when adolescents take on adult roles and form romantic attachments.    Shy people may also be more reluctant to "try new things" which could affect their career prospects or higher education.    Shy young adult are also less likely to date, get married later (if at all), and are less likely to enter into stable relationships.    The transition years are also important since they represent an opportunity to learn the social skills needed to form intimate relationships.   Through different relationships, most young adults learn what they are looking for in a permanent partner and also become more experienced in handling a stable relationship.   For shy people who do not gain these experiences, their ability to form permanent intimate relationships later in life may be impaired.

A new article published in the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science presents the results of two studies looking at the effect of shyness on romantic relationships, romantic beliefs, and well-being.   Two researchers at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, Australia and Carleton University in Ottawa conducted the studies looking at Canadian undergraduates.  In the first study, 1159 undergraduates (795 females, 364 males) were recruited to complete questionnaires on relationship status, shyness, and relationship quality.    Of the participating students, the average age was 19.56 and 50.1 percent reported being in a current relationship.   The study results were in line with previous research in showing that people in relationships were less shy than those not in relationships.   The results also showed that shyer people also reported poorer quality romantic relationships overall. 

The second study took a closer look at how shyness, well-being, and relationship quality were linked.    Using 400 undergraduates (336 females, 62 males) with an average age of 19.62 years, researchers examined shyness, relationship quality, emotional intimacy, adult attachment, psychological well-being, and sexual satisfaction with a battery of psychometric tests.   Based on the results of both studies, the researchers concluded that people in relationships tended to be less shy than people who were not.   For those actually in relationships, shyness was negatively associated with intimacy and sexual satisfaction.  Shyness was also positively associated with insecure romantic attachments, including greater attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance.   For males especially, shyness also had a negative relationship with overall psychological well-being.  

So, why is shyness important in forming strong romantic relationships?   Previous research suggests that shy people have more difficulty communicating, especially about personal matters, and are less likely to be responsive to others.   The results of the two current studies seem to bear this out and also suggest that shy people have problems with trust, being dependent on others, are also more unwilling to become intimate with others.   For shy  people, this can lead to multiple problems including reduced social support, health and well-being problems, and reluctance to investigate future relationships.  They may also feel more nervous when interacting with potential partners and avoid dating altogether to avoid the tension it would cause.    Shyness is also linked to psychological maladjustment in adulthood, much more so for men than for women.  

Attachment-related beliefs appear to have a strong moderating effect on the relationship between shyness and emotional well-being.   Acccording to attachment theory, there are four main styles of attachment in adults:

  • Secure
  • Anxious-preoccupied
  • Dismissive-avoidant
  • Fearful-avoidant

People develop secure attachment styles through a history of good relationships with responsive partners.   Other attachment styles develop due to problems forming strong relationships with others, whether through anxiety or problematic relationships in the past.   These different attachment styles are linked to core beliefs about dating and relationships and can determine how likely people are to form strong emotional attachments to others.    Shy people who are otherwise secure in their confidence to form strong relationships are more likely to avoid emotional problems linked to isolation or poor self-esteem.    For people who avoid relationships due to anxiety about being accepted or feelings of inadequacy, the long-term outcome can be much poorer.  

Though these two studies focused mainly on younger adults (average age of 19) and with fewer men than women, the results help explore the complex relationship that shyness has with relationship quality and psychological well-being.   While more research is definitely needed, shyness appears to have a powerful affect on the type of relationships that young adults have and can definitely influence underlying beliefs about self-worth, the amount of trust they can have in others, and how intimate they can be in romantic relationships.   

While everybody feels a certain degree of shyness when meeting people for the first time, there are definite dangers associated with too much shyness.   Not only does excessive shyness lead to greater loneliness and poorer quality relationships, it can also lead to problems with emotional well-being such as depression.    Developing confidence in yourself and keeping a positive attitude about relationships can be critical in learning how to share your life with others.    As psychoanalyst Erik Erikson pointed out, intimacy vs isolation is the first challenge that all young adults face.    Shy people have greater difficulty meeting this challenge and can often face greater problems later in life as a result. 

So don't be afraid to take a chance when meeting someone new.   It could be the key to a better life. 

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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